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The Art of Chinese Opera

When you enter a Chinese Opera theater in Taipei, the first thing you will notice is a brilliant, lavishly embroidered hanging. Performers will then stride on stage to the sound of strings and woodwinds, or to the clanging of gongs and drums.

First may be a handsome, sturdy young man in warrior garb, somersaulting across stage and displaying his martial skills. Next may follow a young woman veiled by strings of pearls and dressed in silk brocade, singing in a gentle, feminine voice and performing a billowing dance. Then there is the famous Monkey King Sun Wu-k'ung, of the opera Journey to the West, with his twitching, scratching, and mischievous simian antics. These characters are all representative of China's traditional National Opera, or Peking Opera.

Opera viewing has long been a popular entertainment enjoyed by both the common people as well as China's royalty and aristocracy. Libretto and musical score writing attracted the participation of literati and the gentry. The T'ang Dynasty Emperor Ming Huang (712-755 A.D., also known as Hsuan Tsung) and Emperor Chuang Tsung (923-925 A.D.) of the Later T'ang are considered the ``honorary fathers of Chinese Opera'' for their enthusiastic support of the art. Their main claim to this title was their technical knowledge of music. Emperor Hsuan Tsung founded the Pear Garden Academy, a music and dance performing troupe within the court. In later times, opera singing was referred to as the ``pear garden profession,'' and opera performers as ``pear garden brothers.''

Librettos for Peking operas feature both tragic and comic elements, interspersed with singing, dancing, and poetic narration, to dramatize historical events and popular legends. Another style of performance is dialog rendered in language close to everyday speech, and pantomime executed with ordinary gestures. Heartwarming humor reflects and satirizes society, while being educational and entertaining.

The character roles of Peking Opera are distinguished on the basis of sex, age, and personality. The four main character types are the sheng, tan, ching, and ch'ou.

The sheng is a male character, which is further subdivided into the elderly sheng, the young sheng, and the martial sheng. The elderly sheng is a middle-aged to old man who wears a beard, and delivers his lines in a stately, serious fashion. The young sheng is a cultivated gentleman who often plays a dashing young lover. The military sheng is skilled in martial arts; included in this category is the role of the mischievous monkey-king, Sun Wu-k'ung.

Tan refers to various female roles, including the elderly tan, the tan dressed in green, the flower tan, the sword-horse tan, and the martial tan. The elderly tan is an older woman whose singing style corresponds to that of the elderly male sheng. The tan dressed in green is a younger or middle-aged woman who is good, rational, and upright. The flower tan may be an innocent and outgoing girl, or flirtatious and sassy. The military tan is a skilled fighter who often plays a female sprite in myths. The sword-horse tan falls somewhere between the flower tan and the martial tan; she is a female general who is bold and outgoing, and equally skilled in letters as in the military arts.

The ching role is a strong-willed male character, either straightforward or scheming. His facial make-up is greatly exaggerated, so this role can be identified at a glance. The designs and colors employed all have specific meanings, for example, red symbolizes loyalty and courage; black represents a bold and swashbuckling character; blue, a calculating nature; and white, a deceitful and conniving individual. Silver and gold are reserved for the exclusive use of spirits and gods. A face that is made up in a straightforward and consistent manner is called a ``complete face''; one that incorporates many diverse elements is referred to as a ``fragmented face.'' Facial make-up in Chinese Opera, besides giving information about the personality traits and mindset of a character, also has inherent artistic interest.

The tradition that has evolved around the ch'ou, or clown character is a very special one. The ch'ou is a jocular, satirizing character who weaves his impromptu comic relief in and out of the performance, winning the audience over to his side. He also steps out to make objective editorial comments on what is happening in the story.

The costumes worn in Chinese Opera performances are broadly based on the dress current in China about four centuries ago, during the Ming Dynasty. Exaggerated flowing sleeves, pennants worn on the backs of military officers, and pheasant feathers used in headwear were added to heighten the dramatic effect of the stage choreography. These extra touches bring out the various levels of gestures and the rhythm of the movement. Like facial make-up, Chinese Opera costumes tell much about the character wearing them, while also being aesthetically appealing. In the past, Chinese Opera singers would rather wear a worn and torn costume than one that did not correctly represent the character he was portraying.

Chinese Opera was originally performed against only a backdrop, with the other three sides open. The set is extremely simple. It includes a table, which might stand in for a desk, an official's table, or even a hill or bridge. Spatial transitions from one place to another are smooth and economic. The actors have over the centuries developed a set of sophisticated formulae of stylized symbolism. The beards worn by male characters; flowing sleeves, fans, and colored satin ribbons used in dances; and weapons used in fighting are all different types of banners that represent extensions of human limbs. All require a high degree of skill to manipulate, and embody rich theatrical meaning. Actors must begin receiving strict training from a very young age to be able to bring off naturally and with complete ease the singing and reciting style, eye movements, hand gestures, and gait that express the thoughts and emotions of the opera characters.

In the past, Peking Opera tended to be a ``theater for actors.'' Actors drew on the tradition in which they were well-versed to give extemporaneous performances. The moon lute. two-stringed violin, and drum players, who provide the musical accompaniment for the opera, had to cultivate a high degree of sensitivity to and coordination with the actors through years of working together to be able to flow with the performance. Modern Chinese Opera, however, is now set in a box-type stage, and a director system, stage design, and professional lighting are gradually being introduced. These new features serve to enrich the performance and viewing experience, while not being allowed to violate the traditional core of the opera.

Major Peking Opera troupes in the ROC include the Ta Peng, Hai Kuang, and Lu Kuang troupes, and the National Fu-Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy. All four are first-rate professional groups that employ the top Chinese Opera talent in the ROC. Through an alternating schedule, a public performance of traditional Peking Opera is staged by one of the four groups almost every evening in Taipei.

There is also a new avant-garde group, the Ya Yin Ensemble, led by Kuo Hsiao-chuang, a younger generation opera actor. Ya Yin has won wide affirmation and praise from both domestic and international audiences through its writing of new librettos, flexible incorporation of Western theatrical concepts and functions, and experimentation with new performance techniques. The true degree of Ya Yin's success can be measured in how the group has succeeded in attracting young intellectuals to Peking Opera performances.

An impressive new experiment has combined Western drama with traditional Chinese operatic style. Director Wu Hsing-kuo produced a highly innovative and successful adaption of Shakespeare's Macbeth into a modern Peking Opera. Rather than forsaking tradition, this type of experiment is an intermediary step that helps to make traditional Chinese Opera more accessible to modern audiences.

The National Fu-Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy, funded by the ROC Ministry of Education, provides seven years of intensive professional training under the finest teachers in the field. This program is the core of a long-term commitment to cultivating young actors, musicians, and stage technicians for Chinese Opera. The academy has a practice troupe that specializes in performing operas with educational themes for elementary and high school students. There are also over 1,000 amateur Peking Opera troupes in the community, and in colleges and universities. Such groups hold occasional publc performances.

Every week, Taiwan's three television stations air prerecorded or live Peking Opera performances, bringing high quality Chinese Opera into everybody's living room. One program teaches children to appreciate this traditional art through a lively presentation of the history, symbolism, and performance of Peking Opera. Most radio stations offer programs that feature the best of Peking Opera through records of outstanding past performances as well as live broadcasts. These efforts go a long way to keeping the art vital and popular.


Each different style of facial make-up tells the
audience something about the personality
and intents of the character wearing it.

 



Cultural Division, Taipei Economic & Cultural Office in Houston
11 Greenway Plaza, Suite 2910
Houston, Texas, 77046
Tel: (713) 871-0851, Fax: (713) 871-0854, E-mail: houcul@houstoncul.org